I generally try to stay away from making sweeping statements when it comes to what might constitute fun for someone else… but if you haven’t tried your hand at queer contra dance, you’re missing out on one of the most fun experiences in town.

To be honest, before I went with a few friends for the first time last Saturday, I didn’t think I’d be saying so. For one, there’s no getting around contra dance’s extreme wholesomeness, which tends to be an unappealing quality of potential ways to spend a Saturday night.

For another, it’s an activity that strongly resembles square dance, that most holy of traditional-gender-role-enforcing forms of “social bonding” that so many of us remember doing in elementary school during the exact time in our adolescences when cooties and crushes were the most salient aspects of our developing sexualities.

And yet, fun it was, and fun I had at queer contra dance this past weekend. Apparently something happened between the ages of eight and 30 to make do-si-dos and allemandes enjoyable instead of excruciating. Context, I guess you could call it. And voluntariness.

Contra dance is a folk dance from New England.  It originally traveled to American shores from the Old World, where it began life as a hybridization of 17th century English country dances and French court dances. Thus contra dance looks like the sort of ballroom dance that you might know from Jane Austen movies:  couples are arranged in long paired lines that run the length of the ballroom, and they interact with adjacent couples through a series of movements like do-si-dos, swings and chains that serve to pass couples up and down the line, all as a “caller” calls out instructions and a live band plays merry folk tunes.

The relative formality of the dance sequences are balanced by an almost total lack of rules in terms of style and footwork. And when it comes to swinging — which is essentially twirling in a circle with your dance partner, fairytale-style — all bets are off around how the two of you will manage to stay upright, except that you’ll figure it out.

Traditionally, couples in contra dance are strictly male-female. In queer contra, the traditional gender roles are eschewed in favor of armbands (“bands”) to indicate the leaders and bare arms (“bares”) to indicate the followers. Beginners are usually encouraged to start as bares, but the two roles are fairly interchangeable.

To further aid beginners, queer contra dance offers a 30-minute lesson before the official start of the evening. Our instructor on Saturday was Mark Galipeau, a dark-bearded, barrel-chested contra dance enthusiast who walked us through the basic moves that we would ultimately string together per the caller’s instructions. According to Galipeau’s website bio, he found contra dance through a background in international folk dance, and met the love of his life through San Francisco Bay Queer Contra Dance six years ago.

“Contra is a complete symbiotic organism where we all interconnect with one another in such magical ways,” Galipeau writes. “Truly the GLBT is fully spelled out and everyone explodes in a delightful array of queer energy, all set to music.”

It’s not surprising that Galipeau met his life partner through queer contra dance; it’s a space that seems entirely guile- and attitude-free, where inclusivity is so much the norm as to be a given. And I’m not just talking about gender and sexual orientation (of which all orientations are welcome — you certainly don’t need to identify as queer or gender-queer to appreciate a good contra dance).

A queer contra dance means dancing with all ages and skill levels and fashion statements, everything from handlebar ‘staches and cowboy boots to sequined tank tops and clogs. You’re encouraged to dance with different partners throughout the night. You’re encouraged, if you’re a beginner, to approach a veteran and say, “Hey, I’m new here, will you show me the ropes?” You will rarely, if ever, be turned down.

It also means that you’ll probably do some bonding with strangers and friends alike (probably precisely the goal that elementary school administrators were going for when they enforced mandatory square dance lessons). Though one of my friends and I essentially bumbled our way through an entire dance with half-horrified, half-euphoric grins frozen onto our faces, we would occasionally wind up in the right place — and on those few occasions, I wanted to shout at this friend that I loved her and give her the Nobel Prize in contra dance.

That’s the kind of energy that you can expect at queer contra dance: an amiable, enthusiastic mingling of all parties involved. It’s the kind of energy that can take a ballroom full of random dancers — half of whom are beginners who are facing in the wrong direction — and, with a little balance and swing and open arms, turn it into something quite beautiful.

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MORE INFO:

San Francisco Bay Queer Contra Dance’s season has ended for the summer and resumes on September 7 at the Lake Merritt Dance Center (200 Grand Ave., Oakland). $10-15 sliding scale donation. For more information, visit queercontra.org.

In the meantime, Circle Left Contra Dance is a new gender-free contra dance in Berkeley that is sponsored by San Francisco Bay Queer Contra Dance.

Circle Left Contra Dance
WHEN: 8 p.m. (lesson from 7:30 – 8 p.m.) on Friday, June 14, and every second Friday of the month
WHERE: Finnish Brotherhood Hall, 1970 Chestnut St., Berkeley
COST: $5-10
MORE INFO: website

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Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

2 Responses

  1. Lynn Ungar

    What a great description of contra! I would just add that “regular” contra dances are generally very welcoming of all sexual orientations and gender expressions, and that it’s quite common for two women or two men to dance as a couple at dances that are not explicitly for GLBTQ folk. Contra dance — the most fun that you never knew you could have!

    Reply
  2. John Kelly

    Seconding Lynn Ungar’s comment: great description of contra dancing.
    While the other Bay Area contra dances (Berkeley, San Francisco, Hayward, Palo Alto, San Rafael, Petaluma, Santa Rosa) are not officially listed as “gender-free,” you will see plenty of gender freedom at them, and I have never seen anyone try to change that.

    Reply

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